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Criticism of idealism

Bertrand Russell in 1957(Bertrand Russell in 1957. Credit: Anefo, Wikipedia)

The tenets of idealism have been questioned time and time again since its emergence, and the criticisms leveled at it are as varied as are the different forms of idealism. In England, the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell contributed at the beginning of the 20th century to the decline of British idealism as well as to the emergence of analytical philosophy by a whole series of criticisms addressed as much to subjective or transcendental idealism as to to Hegelian-type idealism. Among other things, he puts forward the argument of infinite regress against the idea that the existence of things depends on the knowing subject by virtue of an epistemic relationship that unites him to the known object. In such a perspective, in fact, the existence of the subject in question itself seems to have to be placed under the dependence of another knowing subject in order to be able to be established, a subject whose existence itself depends on the existence of another knowing subject, and so on. Yet Russell himself championed idealistic positions early in his academic career, before rejecting idealism altogether:

“I was at this time a full-fledged Hegelian, and I aimed at constructing a complete dialectic of the sciences, which should end up with the proof that all reality is mental. I accepted the Hegelian view that none of the sciences is quite true, since all depend upon some abstraction, and every abstraction leads, sooner or latter, to contradictions. Wherever Kant and Hegel were in conflict I sided with Hegel… Fortunately, before any of this work had reached a stage where I thought it fit for publication, I changed my whole philosophy and proceeded to forget all that I had done during those two years. The notes I made at that time have, however, a possible historical interest, and, although they now seem to me to be misguided, I do not think that they are any more so than the writings of Hegel. Some of the more salient passages from the notes that I made in those years follow. “

George Edward Moore, another great precursor of analytic philosophy in England, in a 1925 essay titled A Defense of Common Sense, attacks idealism as well as the metaphysical skepticism associated with it. There he argues that, with respect to the existence of the external world, the idealist can give no more plausible reasons for accepting his metaphysical premises than can the common-sense believer with respect to his own assertions. In his 1939 essay, Proof of an External World, he rightly relied on common sense to discredit the skeptical attitude attributed to the idealist, which he illustrated by raising his right hand and saying, “Here is a hand”, then raising his left hand and adding, “Here is another”, then concluding that there are at least two external objects in the world, and that, therefore, he knows that there is an external world that exists. More generally, Moore points out that the skeptical arguments of idealists invariably seem to require an appeal to “philosophical intuitions” which we have considerably less reason to accept than the common-sense assertions which these intuitions are supposed to refute.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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